Monday, February 19, 2007

"Passion": Not Enough Passion

Regular readers will note that this is the first entry in more than five months. Real sorry, man. How's YOUR Bible blog coming?

I gave into a longstanding temptation last week, and watched "Passion of the Christ." You'll recall that there was plenty of hype about this movie a few summers back. Literal busloads of conservative Christians packed theaters in a frank effort to boost the film's box office, the thinking being that a high gross would be equivalent to a high score in the culture wars. Well, whatever.

Having now watched the film, I feel that there was an important point missed in all of the discussion of the time. That point is this: It's bad. To be sure, it has some good elements. The musical score is steller. The photography is exquisite. Props and costuming were slick. But "Passion" manages to transcend its elements of excellence to become a real stinker.

And before we go any further, let me just say that I have no particular problem with Mel Gibson. He has, to be sure, painted a pretty big target on himself with his pathetic personal shenanigans of the past year, but honestly I didn't detect anything like anti-Semitism in "Passion." Nor do I think he is incompetant as a director. I feel his "Hamlet" is the best movie adaptation of that Shakespeare play to date. Gibson put a much-needed dose of physicality into the role, and got amazing performances out of his supporting cast. I expected something of the same might happen with "Passion." No such luck.

"Passion" is a telling on film of the arrest, trial, and execution of Jesus Christ. I'm pretty sure that Gibson hoped we would be thinking while we watched about Christ's assumption of the sins of all mankind. What you actually think about, though, is that the guy on the screen gets the crap beat out of him, ceaselessly, for nearly two hours straight. The beatings start in earnest only a few minutes in, and from then on you are watching the continual brutalisation of a man who is, realistically enough, already in shock. And we are talking about the rawest possible sorts of beatings here, flesh and skin torn away from the body in gory chunks. After the cat-o-nine-tails comes out, at about minute 40, the part of Jesus might as well be played by an unusually stoic side of beef. Now, this might be what a particularly brutal Roman execution would actually look like, but the religious passion, as I understand it, is supposed to be a little more than that.

Where religious content is present, it is embarassingly unsubtle. Satan wanders in and out around the events, passively observing, looking for all the world like one of them smooth, cynical secular humanists with too much education, except that worms and vermin occasionally flicker out from his nostrils. He cradles a grotesquely deformed child. He does not wear a name tag that says "Hello, my name is Satan," but we get the point.

Other actors stand in tableaus, watching pensively, until they march forward to deliver a line from scripture. The fact that the movie is in Aramaic and Latin serves to further distance you from any "passion" in the acting. It moves the movie, again, towards realistic historical reenactment of an execution -- which, again, means away from any spiritual depth. (It also turns Pilate's famous pronouncement of "Ecce homo!", which in English would have gone unnoticed -- "Behold, the man!" -- into a real money line.)

I have not mentioned the flashbacks to happier times which continually and artlessly interupt the flow of the beatings. Example: Mary, watching her already half-dead son being whipped where he lies in the street, recalls a time he fell down as a little boy and she was able to run to him and pick him up. Except she can't save him now that he is being savaged by the Roman Legion. This kind of thing is simultaneously maudlin and emotionally implausible, simultaneously absurd and way too obvious, and gets annoying very quickly. There is even a Back-to-the-Future style gag crediting Jesus the carpenter with inventing the dinette set. No, really, there is.

The end of the movie brought two surprises. First, at the moment of Christ's death, there is a big special-effects spectacular, an Earthquake that looks for all the world like something out of "Lord of the Rings." I was appalled and outraged by this cheap cinematic trick, horrified that Gibson would have felt the need to add showy folderal to an event of such religious importance... but I decided to check the text before I opened my big mouth. Sure enough, three out of four gospel writers describe an earthquake at the moment of Christ's death. Did you remember that?

The second surprise at the end of the movie is the end of the movie. We've watched the son of God get tortured for several reels, and we are primed for his glorious resurrection. Get a fresh bowl of popcorn. Ready? We are shown the inside of the tomb. Jesus sits up. The movie ends.

Verdict: It's possible to create a passion play that explores religious issues. "Last Temptation of Christ" was brilliant. Hell, "Jesus Christ Superstar" did pretty well in the format of a pop musical. And, any village in Austria or Quebec can put on a passion play that does not really explore religious issues, but inspires a feeling of religious devotion. Mel Gibson missed both marks, creating something more akin to a documentary about the limits of the human -- not the sacred -- body.


chuckdaddy2000 said...

I read one review that called it, "A Jesus Snuff Flick."

Karin said...

From my understanding, Gibson and other Christians would put such a heavy emphasis on Jesus' suffering because Christ was assuming "the sins of all mankind". Traditionally, an individual's sins were ceremonially assigned to a lamb or other animal, which was then sacrificed. So if you're assigning the sins of ALL MANKIND, the sacrifice ought to be sufficiently bloody. Plus, it makes it more likely that Jesus actually died (a point of theological contention), which makes it even more incredible and miraculous that he was resurrected (another point of theological contention) and therefore the Messiah and/or God (yet another point of theological contention). Some gospels, one in the bible and others that were not canonized don't even include the death and resurrection story, thereby implying that Jesus, while a great prophet, was not actually God. My personal discovery of this information has significantly changed my worldview. It came as a great shock to even discover different views of Jesus exist now and existed two thousand years ago, but had been suppressed--an important part of my journey.

michael5000 said...

I may have got carried away in making fun of the violence in 'Passion.' It's easy to do, since the violence is so over the top. But it's not like the violence in and of itself bothered me; movie violence doesn't bug me unless it's supposed to be funny. ("Home Alone," where human suffering was a jolly lark, physically sickened me. So go figure.)

What bothered me is that, in a realistic reinaction of a brutal crucifixion, there is no inherent religiosity. The movie would have looked pretty much the same if, instead of being about Christ assuming the sins of all mankind, it was about some provincial schmuck being executed for having been caught with a centurian's wife. So, the realism undermines the message. Christ's suffering for me, no matter how profound, loses something when I know that the schmuck suffered in equal measure for his roll in the hay.

I think Gibson must have realized this at some point, and hence we have Satan strolling about to remind us that this is a supernatural event. But it's all just so ham-handed.....

Karin said...

I don't think Jesus' crucifixion was typical, though, what with the severe beating prior, the nails in the wrists and feet, the crown of thorns and the spear in the side.

Your average hay-rolling schmuck was likely tied to a cross until he died of exhaustion, dehydration and suffocation from the extreme slouching position. Does that help?

michael5000 said...


This is no way to properly honor and express my gratitude for your contribution, but: I don't think that's right. My own reading on Roman execution practices -- I'm a sucker for a light read -- suggest that initial flogging was absolutely part and parcel of a good crucifyin'. Obviously I'm no expert, but this idea is strong enough in what I've read that I thought that the portrayal in "Passion" of the two other men being crucified was a conspicuous historical blunder -- they clearly hadn't been flogged.

To take this a little further, let's say you are a Roman centurion in charge of executing three guys. Of the three, you know that your boss is really torn about killing one of them in particular, and has had his hand forced on the issue. Where are you going to focus your flogging? I'd focus on the other two, myself. Gibson gets around this by making the Roman soldiers into slack-jawed sadistic morons who get carried away while the boss isn't looking, but this too doesn't ring particularly true for me.

To summarize, my understanding is that everybody got beaten quite a bit, and it seems unrealistic that Christ got beaten much more than most. Unfortunately, I'm only on page 11, and the New Testament doesn't start until page 717, so I'm a long way from knowing what the text says unless I take another sneak peek.

Jessica said...

Yes - I would encourage you to read the crucifixion story to see how very accurately the scenes in the passion were shown.

A great link to reference:

As well as: